Zim: Chombo's councillor choice criticised

Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister Ignatius Chombo (centre) was the guest of honour at a farm belonging to Gatsha Mazithulela (right) at a farmers’ field day last year. (Gallo)

Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister Ignatius Chombo (centre) was the guest of honour at a farm belonging to Gatsha Mazithulela (right) at a farmers’ field day last year. (Gallo)

The Mail & Guardian can reveal that one of the two people Local Government, Rural and Urban Development Minister Ignatius Chombo is attempting to impose on Bulawayo City Council as a special interest councillor left his former employer in South Africa under controversial circumstances.

Special interest councillors represent the interests of minority groups, or bring special skills or knowledge that would be lacking among councillors. They are strategically selected after the minister analyses areas of expertise which the council lacks.

Gatsha Mazithulela and Siphiwe Ncube were sworn in as special interest councillors at the Bulawayo City Council by town clerk Middleton Nyoni on February 25 in what other local councillors described as a "secret event", as they were neither notified nor invited.

Urgent court application
Through the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association, resident Alick Gumede filed an urgent application with the High Court, seeking to have the appointments interdicted. Judgment has been reserved.

Mazithulela left South Africa's National Research Foundation (NRF), where he was vice-president, after allegedly instigating charges of spying that resulted in the temporary suspension of top British astronomer Philip Charles in 2010.

Mazithulela had joined the NRF in February 2009 from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa.

Responding to questions from the M&G, the NRF's Thabiso Nkone this week said Mazithulela was not fired, but that he had resigned.
Nkone would not give reasons for Mazithulela's departure, citing employee-employer confidentiality. Nkone also said there were no charges against Charles related to spying.

But according to online publication University World News at the time, Mazithulela reportedly said in an internal memo that the suspension of Charles was related to "the leaking of confidential NRF documents, or contents from those documents" to South African and international academics.

Mazithulela also denied that he was fired from the NRF, but said he resigned out of mutual understanding with the organisation. He said he left the NRF because the South African government had reorganised the astronomy department that he headed.

"Normal resignation"
"I have been a contract worker all my life and it is not strange that I resigned before the end of my contract, that is normal. I even got a glowing testimony from the department of science and technology as well as the NRF. Both were sad to see me leave," he said. "I have worked on contracts and left early, but that has never raised any eyebrows."

He confirmed that Charles was taken through a disciplinary process in relation to issues to do with confidentiality. He said the foundation believed Charles had a case to answer, and a "fair process was done and it was found that the charges against Charles did not stick".

At the time of Mazithulela's departure South Africa's opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), said: "Professor Charles was subsequently completely exonerated of the charges against him and, in July, the NRF vice-president: national research facilities, Dr Gatsha Mazithulela, who instigated the charges, had his employment contract terminated two years and eight months early."

This week, Mazithulela said the DA had been "vocal, meddling in industrial relations. But my leaving of the NRF had nothing to do with the DA or the case."

"Happy to serve the people"
Talking of his appointment in Bulawayo, he said he was "happy to serve the people of Bulawayo. I was duly appointed [as] a special interest councillor because I have expertise that is badly needed at the council." The Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T)-dominated council has, over the years, accused Chombo of imposing Zanu-PF affiliates on the council since his party has not won an election in the council and the two houses in Parliament since the formation of the MDC in 1999. The council is dominated by MDC-T councillors with a few from Welshman Ncube's MDC.

Mazithulela, who moved back to Zimbabwe in December 2011 and settled at his father's Norwood Plot about 10km from Bulawayo, allegedly has strong links with Zanu-PF, an allegation confirmed by some of his actions recently.

Zanu-PF national chair Simon Khaya Moyo arrived at vice-president John Nkomo's funeral in Bulawayo in January in Mazithulela's silver Mercedes-Benz with South African number plates.

In August, Chombo was guest of honour at a champion farmers' field day at Mazithulela's farm. The event was attended by top Zanu-PF officials, including politburo members Dzikamai Mavhaire, Eunice Sandi and Cain Mathema. 

A special interest councillor
On February 22 Chombo wrote to Bulawayo mayor Thaba Moyo, advising him of the appointment of Mazithulela as a special interest councillor, saying that Mazithulela would "participate in issues of Bulawayo City Council and perform the same functions and be entitled to the same benefits in every respect as an elected councillor, except that he shall not have voting rights in meetings of the Bulawayo City Council".

But in an urgent High Court application filed in Bulawayo on March 1, Gumede argued that Chombo's appointments were highly irregular and that the life of the council to which Mazithulela and Ncube were appointed comes to an end next month.

Gumede said the appointments would not benefit the council, but would instead drain it of financial resources. Efforts to get a comment from Chombo were fruitless.

Mazithulela graduated from the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe 18 years ago. He received a Rockefeller Foundation doctoral scholarship through the office of the president to study genetic engineering at the John Innes Centre in Britain.

At 26, Mazithulela graduated with a PhD in genetic engineering and worked in the United States and the United Kingdom. He also obtained an MBA in London.

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